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5 storylines to watch as Sixers begin regular season

The Sixers will begin the regular season without James Harden. What that will look like and what the resolution will be are among the biggest storylines this season.

Philadelphia 76ers Media Day Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

We made it.

No, the James Harden saga hasn’t reached a resolution, but at least we have actual Sixers basketball games to watch. Beats the hell out of the daily non-update updates we’ve gotten all summer and now into the fall.

Still, with Harden on the roster and the Clippers reportedly “pausing” trade talks, the Beard’s presence looms large. Harden will miss the opener in Milwaukee as the Sixers face a stiff test against Giannis Antetokounmpo, Damian Lillard and the Bucks. In that game we’ll get a glimpse of what life without the 10-time All-Star will look like.

Your 2023-24 Sixers will definitely look different under new head coach Nick Nurse. Here are five storylines to keep an eye on this year.

Harden watch

We know that Harden is back with the Sixers after being away for 10 days while he attended to a personal matter, per the team. A trade with L.A. seems far from imminent, so it’s now time to wonder if Harden will actually play a game for the Sixers in the near future.

Thus far, what’s been going on with Harden hasn’t been much of a distraction — at least to hear Nurse and the players tell it.

“My concerns right now are really going to be focused on the game [Thursday] night,” Nurse said at practice Wednesday. “We’ve put a lot into this and we’re in a great space, mentally, preparation-wise and all that stuff. It’s what I’ll continue to do. If there’s any concerns — if and when they arise, whatever — then we’ll handle them. But I really think our guys are not very affected by it.”

Most of the Sixers’ 5-on-5 reps in practice have been without Harden. He also didn’t play a single preseason minute. So, from an on-court standpoint, the team’s non-Harden lineups should be ready. How good they can be and what the offense will look like should be intriguing.

Point Maxey

That leads to the obvious next big storyline: Tyrese Maxey as the team’s lead ball handler.

For the bulk of his NBA career, Maxey has been an off-ball player. Even going back to his year at Kentucky, he shared ball-handling duties with upperclassmen Immanuel Quickley and Ashton Hagans. For opening night, we know Maxey will be the man.

During the preseason, we saw flashes that Maxey can flourish as the point guard within Nurse’s system. The most notable example was the team’s final preseason game against the Hawks, in which Maxey doled out 12 assists. For context, Maxey’s career high is 10.

Embiid’s presence in the preseason finale certainly helped, as the pair found a little chemistry in the second half.

“Well, if he wants to lead the league in assists, he can,” Embiid joked postgame. “But that was great to see. I just wanted to get everybody going and work on that two-man game, the timing of everything. I thought tonight we did a pretty fine job. I thought every single time we didn’t have anything, the ball wasn’t sticking. We were just moving, and there were some good play calls, too.”

While the assists are great and the Sixers will need Maxey to read the floor at a high level, Nurse wants to make sure Maxey doesn’t lose his aggressiveness. Maxey is a difficult player to guard with his combination of speed and elite shooting. Nurse has said all preseason that his goal for Maxey is to take 20 shots a game.

Off that goal, Nurse believes Maxey will make his team better.

“It takes a lot of reinforcement, first of all,” Nurse said last week. “You’ll hear me say it: ‘It’s not quite 20 (shots),’ just making sure he understands that it is a constant message. … In practice, you’ll see me stop a lot and say, ‘Hey, that’s another opportunity. You should’ve went.’ We’re just continuing to coach him and show him. We show him on film; we show him in the scrimmage live situations. And then it’s just some time, man. We need to go through it a little bit.”

Maxey might be the most coachable player the Sixers have had ... ever. He’s heeded Nurse’s message and is doing all he can to execute.

“When a coach has confidence in you and then your teammates have confidence in you to kind of be yourself, it’s a good feeling,” Maxey said postgame last week. “It takes the pressure off of you. You just go out there, be extremely aggressive and get to the hole. And with that comes great responsibility as well — getting to the paint and trying to find guys ... Trying to find your shooters who go out there on the defensive end and do all the little things, get all the loose balls, and have to guard the best players. So you’ve still got to try to find them to keep them in the game as well, because it’s a hard game and they’re doing the dirty work.”

It will be an adjustment. Nurse is prepared to let Maxey take his lumps for the long-term betterment of the team.

It’s been said on this site many times, but it bears repeating: bet against Tyrese Maxey at your own peril.

Embiid adjusting

If you watched the Sixers at all this preseason, you noticed the pace was much faster than it’s been in a long time. Obviously, not having Harden for any of the games and having Embiid for just one makes a difference.

But in the preseason finale against the Hawks, you saw the Sixers maintain that style with Embiid on the floor. At first you could tell he wasn’t quite ready for it, having not played a real game since the postseason. After halftime, it seemed like he got his legs underneath him.

“But then in the second half, he didn’t want to come out,” Nurse said after practice Wednesday. “And he was playing, I thought, with great pace — on both ends. We had him out there switching, you guys saw, on the perimeter. He was playing hard and he ran 12 straight (minutes) and said he wanted a couple more. I gave him three more and then he wanted to keep going. I was like, ‘OK, that’s enough.’ So I think he kind of got his second wind and some legs, obviously, underneath him there.

“So at this stage, I’m pretty encouraged that he’s going to be playing with some intensity on the defensive end, first and foremost, and running the floor a little bit.”

Nurse’s style will demand Embiid to stay on top of his fitness level. To Embiid’s credit, he’s seemingly improved in that department every season over the last few years.

The reigning MVP and two-time scoring champ will play a little differently this season — change he’s so far been inviting. Nurse has said the unpredictable style he wants to play on both ends has excited Embiid. He wants Embiid to do some things out of his comfort zone while also looking at ways to play to his strengths.

So far, Embiid is all in.

“I’ve always wanted to play that way,” Embiid said postgame last week. “I’ve never liked just being an iso player. I don’t think that’s the right way to play and I don’t think that’s the right way to win. So I like the system. Today, there were a couple of passes where guys weren’t expecting it, and I was telling them, ‘When you cut, you’ve got to cut hard. You’ve got to cut to mean it and be ready to receive the ball.’ There were a few times where I passed it and they weren’t ready, but that’s going to be like that all year. I just want to come in and look for those guys, and just play as a team and keep moving the ball. Hopefully, that helps us win.”

It’s fair to wonder if Embiid AND the Sixers will be better off with Embiid playing less “hero ball” on offense and really displaying his defensive prowess.

Are the Sixers deeper?

To answer it simply: yes.

Even without Harden, the Sixers have six reliable rotation players returning in Embiid, Maxey, P.J. Tucker, Tobias Harris, De’Anthony Melton and Paul Reed. The team added veterans Patrick Beverley, Kelly Oubre, Jr. and Danny Green. Returning players Danuel House, Jr. and Furkan Korkmaz will also be in a fight for minutes. And Jaden Springer has forced his way into consideration after a stellar preseason.

There are 11 legitimate rotation options. It’s a good problem for Nurse to have.

“Well, I think the difficulties there are this: Danny Green was a big question mark. Was he going to be healthy? Could he still get it done? I think he played very well, so that was another one that kind of came into the mix there. Kelly’s probably gotten the most run there, just maybe because of health. And what’s made it a little harder is the House and Furk (unavailability) this preseason, too. But I think in Furk’s one chance, he was very good. And House had some really good moments as well. So again, these guys have all proven they can step out there and help us in a certain way. It’s just going to be how we figure it out, how we do it night to night, or what the game calls for. Maybe in the middle of the game, the plan changes, too.”

So, your opening night starters are easy to figure out: Maxey, Melton, Harris, Tucker and Embiid. If you glean anything from preseason play, Reed will definitely back up Embiid, while Beverley will be the first guard and Oubre the first wing off the bench. It feels very likely you’ll see Green and Springer as well.

House and Korkmaz will likely get opportunities, but they might have to wait. Mo Bamba and Filip Petrusev will fight for minutes whenever Embiid is out of the lineup.

The Nurse effect

As everyone around here learned the hard way, the main characteristics of a Nick Nurse team are aggressiveness, creativity and always being on the attack.

He’s been described by several guys as a “player’s coach.” Many of them have pointed to Nurse’s willingness to let players be themselves while simplifying his message.

“He articulates what he wants from us and makes it really simple for us to go out there and execute,” Oubre said after practice Wednesday. “I’m excited to continue to learn and elevate my game and my basketball knowledge through him. He is who he is for a reason, right? He’s a great, and I’m excited to learn and play for a great coach.”

On the other end of the spectrum is Green, who won a championship with Nurse back in 2019 (yeah, we all remember). Green talked about Nurse’s outside-the-box thinking when the head coach went to a box-and-one and triangle-and-two during the NBA Finals.

It was bold, but it worked. That’s because Nurse gained the trust of his players.

“You should’ve seen the huddle when he said, ‘We’re going to go triangle-and-two.’ I think we were more confused at that and like, ‘What the hell? Are we really doing this?’ When we tried the box-and-one, we were like, ‘OK, not too bad.’ But the triangle-and-two threw us for a real loop. When it worked, we were like, ‘OK, it’s actually working.’ By the time they figured it out, it was kind of late. It took a lot of trust.

“Nick’s earned my respect and a lot of trust from me, so anything he throws at us now, I’m definitely going to be on board and get the guys on board with it.”

If you’ve gotten this far and are looking for a bold prediction, I think Nick Nurse will be a sizable upgrade for the Sixers and this will still be a top-four team in the East — with or without Harden.

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